The Fundamental Changes of Adolescence
- Changes in Cognition
- Adolescents think in ways that are more advanced, efficient, and effective
- Thinking about possibilities
Thinking about abstract concepts
- Unlike children, adolescents' thinking is not necessarily tied to concrete
- For the adolescent, reality is only one aspect of "possible realities."
- Children have fantasies and imaginations, but adolescents can manipulate
their thoughts in a way that allows them to generate possibilities and compare
fantasies (possibilities) with likely future scenarios.
- Finding solutions to problems involves a more systematic mental manipulation
of the pieces of the problem.
- The ability to think logically and systematically enhances the adolescent's
ability in abstract math (e.g., algebra, geometry, trigonometry), biology,
chemistry, and physics.
- This advanced reasoning capacity also allows adolescents to reason in social
situations in more complex ways (e.g., teens become more argumentative with
parents and peers).
- Adolescents develop the ability to think about hypotheses and plan for future
consequences of their and others' actions.
- Teens can also suspend their own beliefs and argue from another's or an
abstract point of view (e.g., playing "devil's advocate").
- Teens develop a cognitive skill called deductive reasoning. It is the ability
to draw logical conclusions based on a set of facts, or premises.
- Deductive reasoning is different than inductive reasoning. This is the ability
to draw a conclusion based on accumulated evidence. Unlike deductive reasoning
solutions, inductive solutions are not necessarily correct. Inductive reasoning
is used by children, adolescents, and adults.
- Adolescence is also when hypothetical thinking emerges. This is using what
one knows and anticipating an outcome based on logic.
- This allows adolescents to suspend beliefs and argue or think about what
- Hypothetical thinking allows the teen to take the perspective of others
and think what other people might be thinking.
- This plays an important role in decision-making skills, as it allows the
teen to foresee consequences before they occur.
Thinking about thinking
- Adolescents can think about things that cannot be directly experienced in
a much more advanced way than children.
- Puns, proverbs, metaphors, and analogies make sense to adolescents in ways
that they do not to children.
- Youth apply abstract thinking to social and ideological issues, such as
politics, philosophy, religion, and morality, and the meaning of life, and
to social interactions.
Thinking in multiple dimensions
- Thinking about one's thoughts is called metacognition.
- It includes being aware of thinking, being aware of one's comprehension
or learning, and being able to explain one's thoughts to others.
- Adolescents also become more introspective and self-conscious, and engage
in intellectualizations more often.
- Being more introspective, youth ponder their own emotions.
- Being more self-conscious, they think about what others might think of them.
- Engaging in intellectualizations, they think more about their own thoughts.
- The growth of these abilities can cause the adolescent difficulties, before
he or she has gained control over them.
- Increased introspection can lead to a self-absorbed adolescent (a form of
- Adolescents can fall prey to thoughts of an imaginary audience, or thinking
that everyone else is aware of and thinking about the adolescent (e.g., "everyone
at the baseball stadium will notice how stupid I look in this shirt").
- They can also experience the personal fable, thinking that one's personal
experiences are completely unique ("no one could possibly understand
what I'm going through, so why talk about it") or that one has extraordinary
gifts and abilities ("I can take this curve faster than anyone else who
- Interestingly, these thought patterns may be as common among adults as they
are among adolescents.
- Adolescents can think about many different aspects of a situation at once.
- They understand that most complicated questions or problems have complicated,
- Youth describe themselves and others in more differentiated and complicated
terms, which leads social relationships to become more sophisticated.
- Adolescents understand sarcasm and double entendres in ways children do
Theoretical Perspectives on Adolescent Thinking
- While children tend to see things in "black and white," adolescents
tend to see things as relative ("shades of gray").
- Adolescents may believe that there is nothing that one can be 100% sure
of; this may be a transitional mode of thinking on the way to a more sophisticated
understanding of what is known versus what is unknown.
- The Piagetian view of adolescent thinking
- This cognitive-developmental view of thinking states that individuals proceed
through qualitatively different stages in which thinking changes dramatically
from one stage to the next.
- Piaget's four stages (sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational,
and formal operational) span the ages 0-2, 2-7, 7-11, and 11 +, respectively.
- Piaget believed that both biological maturation and experience with mental
tasks influenced cognitive development.
- The use of propositional logic is a hallmark of formal operations.
- Propositional logic uses a set of "rules" for solving problems.
For example, if A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A must
be greater than C.
- Adolescents do not have to be aware of using propositional logic in order
to use it effectively.
- The growth of formal-operational thinking
The scientific study of adolescence: Separating competence and performance
in studies of adolescent reasoning
- In early adolescence, individuals may be able to use propositional logic
only sporadically (emergent formal operations).
- The adolescents who eventually develop formal operational abilities typically
improve in their use of such thinking in middle to late adolescence.
- Secure relationships with parents during childhood and receiving explicit
instruction in deductive reasoning are associated with higher use of formal
operational thinking in adolescence.
- Distinctions have been made between competence and performance of such mental
- Competence means what the adolescent can do, while performance means what
the adolescent actually does.
- Performance on reasoning tasks is higher when the tasks have personal relevance
- The characteristics of formal operations probably develop more gradually
than Piaget described, rather than in a strict stage-like fashion.
The information-processing (I-P) view of adolescent thinking
- There is a difference between what adolescents can do and what they actually
- Being able to solve relevant problems vs irrelevant problems was only
evident for older adolescents (9th and 12th graders), not early adolescents
- Therefore, there was an interaction between grade and type of task. Results
indicated that one factor (task relevance) affected the outcome (performance)
only for certain grade levels.
- This view has sought to determine what specific skills develop as a person
matures in thinking ability.
- I-P research breaks down an ability into separate components or steps, and
studies each step as a unique skill.
- I-P theory uses the personal computer as an analogy for how the mind works
(e.g., the mind uses programs and subprograms to solve problems and store
- Changes in information-processing abilities during adolescence
New directions for theories about adolescent thinking
- Research has focused on five skills: attention, working memory, processing
speed, organization, and metacognition.
- Adolescents have higher abilities than do children in selective attention,
or the ability to focus on one stimulus/idea and not be distracted by others.
- Adolescents also have higher abilities in divided attention, or the ability
to think about two or more things at once.
- Adolescents also have better working memory, or the ability to hold information
in one's conscious awareness for brief periods.
- They also have better long-term memory, or the ability to store and recall
information over long time periods.
- Adolescents also outperform children in how fast they can think, called
information processing speed.
- They also can use organizational strategies better than children (e.g.,
the use of planful thinking or mnemonic devices to solve problems or store
- They are more capable of remembering that certain mental skills are useful
in solving certain kinds of problems (e.g., how to go about remembering
a long list of terms).
- Finally, adolescents are more aware of their own thinking processes than
The adolescent brain
- Robbie Case views cognitive changes as following a stage-like progression,
but the qualitative differences between stages are better described in I-P
terms and skills than in Piaget's more global terms.
- Case has also argued that changes in mental skills are likely accounted
for by physical changes in the brain during the maturation process.
- Case points to the automatization of thinking that emerges during adolescence
(adolescents don't need to consciously think about certain information in
order to use it, like children do; performing a task becomes "automatic").
- Other researchers ask, interestingly, why individual behavior is often so
illogical despite the cognitive skills that have developed. It is suggested
that we have the ability to switch between the use of logical thinking and
"heuristic" thinking. Heuristic thinking is based on past experience,
gut feelings, and unconscious processes.
Individual Differences in Intelligence in Adolescence
- Through the use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and PET
scans (positron emission tomography), scientists have learned much about changes
in the structures and functions of the brain during adolescence.
- Changes in the brain are thought to importantly affect behavioral, emotional,
and cognitive changes that emerge during adolescence.
- Changes in the connections between brain cells (neurons), as well as a possible
pruning of connections between brain cells (synapses), especially in the cortex,
may cause more efficient and focused information processing.
- Changes in the amount of neurotransmitters, chemicals that allow neurons
to communicate, change during adolescence, especially levels of dopamine and
- Changes in neurotransmitters in the limbic system, a large part of the brain
that strongly influences emotions, may make individuals more emotional, more
responsive to stress, and less responsive to rewards.
- Some scientists believe these changes may make adolescents seek higher levels
of new, exciting experiences - risky behaviors and drug use.
- These changes may also make adolescents more susceptible to depression,
substance abuse, and mental health problems.
- Full maturation of the prefrontal cortex is not complete until sometime
between adolescence and early adulthood. This part of the brain is in control
of planning, decision-making, goal-setting, and metacognition.
- Synaptic pruning and myelination of neurons in the prefrontal cortex continues
throughout adolescence. Myelination of neurons creates an insulation around
the cells that allows them to function faster and more efficiently.
- Measuring intelligence
- The IQ test
Sternberg's Triarchic Theory
- Various tests have been created to measure overall intelligence (IQ),
such as the Stanford-Binet, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children,
and the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale.
- The first widely used IQ test was constructed in 1905 by Alfred Binet
in order to determine which French children would benefit from formal schooling
versus "special education."
- IQ tests typically provide scores that reflect an individual's overall
ability compared to one's agemates, or cohort.
- The number 100 is used to indicate an "average" level of intelligence
on IQ tests.
- Modern IQ tests actually provide indications of different types of abilities,
such as verbal abilities and performance (non-verbal) abilities.
- These tests are definitely focused on measuring abilities that individuals
use in formal education settings, rather than contexts outside of school.
Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences
- Robert Sternberg has proposed that there are three separate abilities
that make up overall intelligence.
- Componential intelligence involves our ability to acquire, store, and
process information ("analytical thinking").
- Experiential intelligence involves our ability to use insight and creativity
- Contextual intelligence involves our ability to think in practical terms
- All individuals have different levels of each ability.
Intelligence: Test performance in adolescence
- Howard Gardner has proposed that there are seven types of intelligence:
verbal, mathematical, spatial, kinesthetic, self-reflective, interpersonal,
- How stable are IQ scores across different ages?
- How do the abilities measured by IQ tests improve at different ages?
- Measurements of stability will always reflect one's scores in relation
to agemates, and as such will not necessarily reflect improvements in ability
(e.g., if the whole peer group gets "smarter," one's IQ score
can basically remain the same).
- IQ scores are relatively stable; one's overall ability compared to one's
agemates is pretty stable over time.
- However, the level of one's ability usually increases over adolescence;
that is, adolescents do typically get "smarter" over time.
- Recent research indicates that speed of information processing during
the first 12 months of life is predictive of IQ scores during adolescence.
- While most children and adolescents progress "evenly", scoring
at approximately the same level relative to one's peers at different ages,
others do not follow such a pattern, some rising and some falling compared
to their agemates.
- Overall, mental abilities increase at least until around age 20, when
they may level off and remain high throughout early and middle adulthood.
- These findings support the importance of formal education on intellectual
- The SAT
- The scholastic aptitude test measures overall academic accomplishment.
- It is used to predict the likelihood of success in college.
- It is a good, but not perfect, predictor of college success.
- Colleges therefore do not rely solely on SAT scores to make acceptance
- SAT math scores are better predictors of success in college math classes
for males than for females.
- The sexes: Are there differences in mental abilities at adolescence
Culture and intelligence
- Research decades ago indicated that significant gender differences in
intelligence emerged during adolescence.
- This research claimed that females emerged with higher verbal abilities,
while males emerged with higher mathematical abilities.
- It was suggested that hormonal differences were a major influence on such
- Some also argued that the faster maturation of girls hindered the development
of mathematical/spatial abilities in females.
- A third explanation, which has received the most support, states that
males and females are "shaped" in different ways by people and
society, so that males are encouraged in the "hard sciences" while
females are encouraged in "soft sciences" or language arts (e.g.,
English, foreign language).
- Recent research has shown that adolescents' abilities are related more
strongly to experiences, such as course selection, rather than gender.
- More recent gender studies have found males' and females' abilities to
be more similar than were found decades ago, pointing to changes in sex
roles and educational opportunities that have taken place in industrialized
- The only remaining gender difference is in spatial ability, and even this
difference seems to be diminishing in recent years.
Adolescent Thinking in Context
- Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who emphasized the broader social
context in which cognitive development takes place.
- Cultures are different with regard to the expectations and opportunities
for intelligent thought.
- Each culture demands that children and adolescents develop certain cognitive
- Vygotsky argued that individuals progress best when the challenges they
face are not too easy, not too hard, but moderately challenging - a level
he called the zone of proximal development.
- Individual instruction offered by a more experienced other to a student
that leads to cognitive improvement is called scaffolding.
- When intelligence is assessed using instruments that do not apply to the
context in which individuals have been raised, those instruments may be
- Some argue that the differences between Caucasian and minority test scores
in the U.S. reflect the fact that standardized tests have been constructed
to measure the things that Caucasian individuals have had experience with.
- Culture-fair tests have been developed in an attempt to overcome this
- Changes in social cognition
- Thinking about people, social relationships, and social institutions
- Understanding of social relationships becomes more mature and complex
- Impression formation
Social perspective taking
- Impressions of others become more differentiated (people all have different,
- Impressions become less egocentric (recognizing that one's own impression
of someone is just one, and one biased, view of that person).
- Impressions become more abstract (based on attitudes and motives, rather
than appearance or behaviors).
- Adolescents make greater use of inferences (make assumptions, based on
evidence, of another's internal characteristics).
- Impressions are more highly organized (seeing connections between another's
traits and their settings or experiences).
- These gains in impression formation signal the emergence of an implicit
personality theory - an idea of why people are the way they are.
Conceptions of morality and social convention
- Taking the view of others
- Adolescents are more capable of seeing things through the eyes of another.
- During early adolescence, according to Robert Selman, individuals can
engage in mutual role taking (thinking of a situation as an objective "third
party," "seeing both sides of the coin").
- In middle or late adolescence, individuals understand that everyone's
perspective is very complicated, sometimes unconscious, and influenced by
Adolescent risk taking
- Children tend to see moral rules as absolutes.
- Adolescents, however, tend to question rules and believe that morals are
- Understanding social conventions (rules that govern social behavior) changes.
- In the adolescent's mind, conventions are merely expectations, not absolutes.
- Adolescents often see conventions as "rules for rules' sake"
which need not be obeyed.
- Gradually, adolescents come to see the value of conventions for regulating
behavior and encouraging cooperation between people.
Adolescent thinking in the classroom
- A recent study showed that 16% of high school students rarely or never use
a seatbelt; 80% of boys and 60% of girls take unnecessary risks while skateboarding
or riding bicycles; more than 1/3 have been passengers in cars driven by intoxicated
drivers; 2/3 of sixth graders have experimented with alcohol.
- What are the reasons adolescents engage in risky behaviors?
- Behavioral decision theory analyzes the different elements of the decision-making
- Research demonstrates that adolescents use adult-like cognitive processes
when faced with a decision.
- Adolescents do not feel more invulnerable to negative consequences of bad
decisions than adults.
- Adolescents and adults, however, may evaluate consequences differently.
- Many adolescents may not feel that the costs of risky behavior are as serious
as many adults do (e.g., contracting a STD by having unprotected sex).
- Individuals who have higher needs for sensation seeking may be more likely
to engage in risky behaviors.
- Sensation seeking may be higher during adolescence than childhood and adulthood.
- Adolescents are more likely to accept faulty reasoning or shaky evidence
when they agree with the substance of an argument than when disagree.
- Adolescents may also be more likely to engage in risky behavior because
they spend so much time in contexts without adult supervision and the adult
opinions or feedback they would receive regarding decisions.
- Evidence of critical thinking in the classroom does not match what developmentalists
believe adolescents are capable of.
- Critics suggest that schools rarely promote such thinking.
- Give-and-take discussions may account for less than 10% of classroom time
- Others believe that schools should specifically aim to improve specific
information processing skills (such as attention, organization, and memory).